Jibu George on Friedrich Nietzsche and ‘Certain Predicaments of Our Time’

We continue our month of short articles celebrating Nietzsche’s birthday with a piece from our Editorial Advisory Board member Jibu George. Jibu is Assistant Professor in the Department of Indian and World Literatures at the English and Foreign Languages University (formerly the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages), India, and whose books include Ulysses Quotīdiānus: James Joyce’s Inverse Histories of the Everyday (2016) and The Ontology of Gods: An Account of Enchantment, Disenchantment, and Re-Enchantment (2017). Here, Jibu reflects on Nietzsche and our current predicament with this wide-ranging and insightful essay. 


While proposing what he calls the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” French philosopher Paul Ricoeur designates the three demythologizers of modernity – Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud – “masters of suspicion.” According to Ricoeur, hermeneutics of suspicion is a mode of philosophical interpretation which aims to reveal disguised meanings: “This type of hermeneutics is animated by…a skepticism towards the given, and it is characterized by a distrust of the symbol as a dissimulation of the real” (Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences 6). Ricoeur contrasts this kind of hermeneutics with the “hermeneutics of faith,” concerned with the “restoration” of meanings. He calls Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud “masters of suspicion” because they “look upon the contents of consciousness as in some sense ‘false’; all three aim to transcend this falsity through a reductive interpretation and critique” (6). Among the three thinkers mentioned by Ricoeur, Nietzsche appears to be the least read (Of course, this also depends upon the circles one belongs to, and what part of the world one is from) but the most relevant for our times. Marx is read even today because of the politics after his theories, and Freud, the most misunderstood and misquoted of the three, primarily because he is ‘sensational’ read.

Nietzsche demonstrates how apparently neutral and rational concepts such as truth, reason, and morality were originally matters of political expediency, ruses contrived to serve the interests of particular groups. For instance, in On the Genealogy of Morals he showed how Judaeo-Christian ennoblement of values of meekness, humility, poverty, suffering, and piety was a craftily sublimated expression of slaves’ ressentiment (often translated as ‘resentment’) against, and ideological revenge upon, their masters. That is why Nietzsche calls for a ‘revaluation’ (sometimes called a transvaluation) of all values – for the birth of a new demythologized humanity shorn of illusions, for creation of new values. As his Zarathustra would have us believe, the “overman” (Übermensch, also translated as ‘superman’) is to man what man was to ape. Man – man as a fossil repository of centuries of conditioning – is to be overcome! Indeed, Nietzsche’s critique of Judaism, and his concepts such as Übermensch and “blond beast” were for a while considered the legitimizing pre-texts for anti-Semitic Nazism. But on a lighter note, Nazism had more to do with the hand of Elisabeth Alexandra Förster-Nietzsche which Adolf Hitler kissed than with the philosopher’s ideas themselves. Nietzsche would have laughed Nazi ideologues out of court.

Today it is a commonplace of ideological critique that apparently neutral phenomena are the chosen sites of ideological manipulation. Power-relations could be naturalized in the name of a neutral concept. As Nietzsche sought to demonstrate, the error of ideology consists in detaching such concepts and phenomena from their historical conditions, thus obscuring the ideological purpose. The suspicion of much contemporary theory and literary criticism is directed, quite legitimately, at concealed ideologies. Marxist literary critics analogically extend this argument to claim that the supposed autonomy or neutrality (transcendental status or ahistoricity) of literary works is also dubious. Hence the need to historicize such products of human imaginative endeavour such as literature, which were once considered neutral entities that transcended historical turbulence.

In fact, two key tendencies of twentieth-century theory take off from two insights articulated by Nietzsche. The first is of course ideology-critique (a sub-type of what Ricoeur terms the “hermeneutics of suspicion”). The second is linguistic deconstruction.  If Michel Foucault is one of the several intellectual descendants of the former, Jacques Derrida is heir to the latter. The ‘linguistic turn’ can probably be traced back to the following statement of Nietzsche’s, included in On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873). He asks:

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations which, poetically and rhetorically intensified, became transposed and adorned, and which after long usage by a people seem fixed, canonical and binding on them. Truths are illusions which one has forgotten are illusions, worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the sense. (Portable Nietzsche 46)

Derrida echoes Nietzsche when he discusses the figures of “the structure” and “the center”: “The history of metaphysics…is the history of these metaphors and metonymies”; and Martin Heidegger in the following sentence: “Its matrix…is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of the word” (Writing and Difference 279). The fixation, institutional, linguistic, philosophical and cultural, that Nietzsche mentions is the target of deconstruction, which reveals it to be the subject of Derrida’s lexico-conceptual “play.”

I have heard pragmatic thinkers dismissing Nietzsche as an “overreacher.” Indeed, Nietzsche demonstrated the capacity of individuals and cultures for meta-thinking. We are capable of thinking about our thinking sequentially though not simultaneously. We can ask ourselves: ‘Why do I hold this view?’ and ‘What are the assumptions that lie behind our actions?’ The freedom envisaged by Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” envisions a subject capable of meta-thinking. To deny the possibility of meta-thinking is to succumb to what I call ‘cultural fatalism.’ As for objections to his (and others’) overreaching tendencies, one can quote Robert Browning and his artist-protagonist Andrea del Sarto: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

However, as opposed to several ‘system-builders,’ Nietzsche did not lay out a grand vision of the world. He preferred an aphoristic style. Most of his ‘philosophy’ consists of pithy statements, which the reader needs to contextualize.  Can we extrapolate anything from this? Perhaps, it tells us that no grand visions of the world are possible. Nietzsche is perhaps the first postmodern philosopher, whose thought is marked by what Jean-François Lyotard was to call later an “incredulity” towards totalizing “metanarratives” (grands récits). All we can have are “little narratives” or mini-narratives (petits récits) – contextualized, historicized, self-deconstructing truths.

Jibu George, Assistant Professor in the Department of Indian and World Literatures at the English and Foreign Languages University, India

References

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: RKP, 1978.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff

Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1969.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Viking, 1973.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and

Interpretation. Ed. and trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.


As part of our celebrations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birthday, we are offering a 50% discount on five of our most important recent titles on the enigmatic thinker. Please click here to see more.

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